When he released me from his embrace, Shelly Drobny reached into the air, strained upwards with his fingers, grasped something invisible, and shouted, “You’ve got the brass ring!”
The plan was a million dollars to begin with; more when we’d launched at least three new storefronts. The money would come in two-hundred-fifty-thousand-dollar tranches. Locations should be college-towns in markets where Air America Radio had broadcast affiliates. In fact, Vox Pop was to be the public face of Air America in dozens of towns being served by the progressive talk-radio network founded by Shelly and Anita Drobny a few years before.
I had driven in from Amherst on this October 2005 evening expecting a first conversation on this subject, but Sander Hicks’s friendship with the Drobnys was further along than I’d realized. I’d first met them at Vox Pop back in June, just prior to the BEA convention, when Shelly had done a book signing of his memoir Road To Air America. I hadn’t realized that in the meantime he’d agreed to have Vox Pop issue the paperback edition of the book.
Drobny was evidently impressed with Sander’s political and media activism, and with Vox Pop’s business plan and first year’s activity. Our first book, American Assassination: The Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, published back in November of 2004, had sold through its entire two-thousand copy print-run in one month. Our second title, Sander’s own book, The Big Wedding: 9/11, The Conspiracy and The Cover-Up, had also sold through its entire print-run—twenty-five hundred copies—in one month. My book Rebel Bookseller had only sold one-thousand copies at first, but the reorders were still coming, and we’d gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly. In addition, on that evening in October, just before dinner with the Drobnys, I watched Sander demonstrate our Instabook machine. It was quite an intriguing device, popping out a paperback book in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, I personally knew a bit too much back-story after a year of Instabook wrangling to be relaxed during a session of promoting the virtues of in-house book printing. The miraculous machine had a propensity for embarrassing breakdowns. Sander was lucky this time though, and the Instabook performed on cue.
Thus the dinner meeting was the culmination of months of courtship, and its outcome augured well for Vox Pop’s ambitious growth plan.
We’d opened the storefront one year before, in November of 2004, and our mix of musical performance, open mikes, political debates and book-signings--along with Holley’s café development and book-buying and Sander and Holley’s engaged, personable presence in the store--had quickly elicited a pleased neighborhood following. It turned out that people had been waiting for us: The Village Voice informed the city that we were straight out of Greenwich Village in the 60s. The New York Times reported that our arrival in Ditmas Park meant real estate values would soon be climbing. Sander and Holley had taken the apartment upstairs from the café, and with the arrival of their son in April, they looked the model young entrepreneurial success story.
Unfortunately our café product mix was rather inexpensive, we didn’t have very much seating, and there wasn’t enough space for a robust book inventory to be displayed. Monthly sales were at less than half break-even levels. Sander and Holley soon realized they would need a more extensive menu to satisfy their patrons and earn adequate income, but with no space for a kitchen this was problematic. Vox Pop applied for a beer and wine license, increased its selection of prepared-food items, and struggled with the mounting pile of bills.
Vox Pop had launched with very little capital. I had encouraged this: my mantra was, “You can’t get yourself out of trouble until you get into trouble.” I felt that when people saw how great we were, we’d find funding somehow. The first actual funders, perhaps unsurprisingly, though, were family and friends. Holley’s family, primarily, and Sander’s friends.
In particular, though, I was quite intrigued at Sander’s ability to convince our customers to buy stock in the company. When it came time for Rebel Bookseller to go to the printer, for instance, it was a neighbor who provided the six thousand dollars to buy three thousand copies.
Not that all of the neighbors were so happy about our presence. At the firehouse down the block some firemen referred to us as “commie coffee” and refused to patronize us. Apparently Sander’s activism in the 9/11 Truth Movement was perceived as unpatriotic. I told him our slogan should be “9/11, 24/7” in honor of the prominent display of 9/11 literature near the front door. Of course, he’d done serious, original research, traveling around the country to interview a variety of unusual individuals and learn their disturbing stories, so I never questioned his learning or his passion on the subject. And the success of his book showed that many others felt the same way about the importance of unveiling the entire story behind the 9/11 disaster.
After Shelly Drobny’s momentous announcement of impending venture investment, Sander and I began to wrestle with the operational implications. How would Vox Pop manage a rapid expansion? I felt that our successful public relations work in New York City meant we had to launch our first round of expansion in the region, even though the Drobnys had expressed an interest in college-towns around the country. As a compromise, we pinpointed collegiate neighborhoods: Greenwich Village, for New York University, and The Bronx, for Fordham University. Sander made appointments with real estate brokers and we spent several days together location-hunting. By January 2006, with little by way of follow-up contact from the Drobnys, we concluded that we might be able to elicit the first promised two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars by committing to a high-profile location in Greenwich Village. Village Comics, a longstanding bookstore on Sullivan Street one block from NYU, was closing down. Their twenty-one-hundred square foot storefront seemed perfect for a bookstore-café. The rent was high at seven thousand dollars per month, but I felt such a hot location with a full program of special events could earn enough to justify it.
We were heavy into negotiations with the landlord and needed cash to seal the deal. Sander tried to put Shelly Drobny on the spot. The bad news came: Air America Radio was suddenly in financial turmoil and the Drobnys were not liquid. Their Vox Pop investment would need to be postponed.
Our Greenwich Village deal was abandoned.
Meanwhile, we’d heard that the owners of a record-store and café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn wanted out, and were looking for someone to assume ownership. They were open to creative financing. Sander and I went over there one evening. The place was packed. It looked appealing, but the fixturing was restaurant-like and we worried that the space could not be configured for concerts or book-signings. As we browsed the CD racks in the attached record-store, the clerk asked Sander, “Are you the guy in that movie?”
“Horns and Halos? Yes, that’s me.”
The clerk straightened up a bit. “You’re Sander Hicks? That movie was awesome!”
We walked out of the store, and I said, “People recognize you in the street? You should run for office!” He gave me a sidelong glance.
A few days later I opened an email. Sander was being encouraged by friends to run for Governor of New York on the Green Party ticket.